Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
April 27, 2014
In my first year at seminary I took a course entitled, “Systematic Theology: The Big Questions.” Taught by the Dean of our seminary, the course covered exactly what it said it would: the big questions. We talked about who God is. We talked about the meaning of love. We talked about the world that we live in. The biggest question that we covered was this: does God exist?
Of course, for a bunch of people who are going to become priests, it’s an awfully important question to answer. Because if the answer is no, then we should all sign up for career counseling. One of the assignments was to read the popular book by the atheist Richard Dawkins called, “The God Delusion.” It still sits on my shelf.
In one of our small group discussions about this book and about the question as to if God exists, one of my fellow seminarians went through some sort of faith crisis. See, this book challenged some of her core beliefs and called into question the things she held most dearly. You may have heard of other seminarians having the same experience – they go off to seminary and lose their faith entirely. At a loss for words, this seminarian was struggling to cope with what she had read and her faith and what it all meant. Could God really exist?
Of course, I too read “The God Delusion.” And in my line of work, I talk with atheists and agnostics all the time. Atheists are those who claim there is no god. Agnostics are those who claim that they cannot know. In light of my conversations and reading I have come to two conclusions. First, the arguments for atheism and agnosticism are super boring. Seriously, they are. It all boils down to some quaint notion that we should all carry on as normal and that we should all be nice to each other and do good things. At least Christianity makes an attempt to say what those good things are. In all seriousness, I don’t think the world has produced an interesting atheist for at least a hundred years.
My second conclusion is that the god the atheists and agnostics don’t believe in, is a god I don’t believe in either. In my experience and reading, the atheistic and agnostic reaction to god is not the same God we claim as Christians. For instance, I’ve heard our atheist and agnostic friends say, “How could you believe in a god who would send a baby to hell just because they haven’t been baptized?” My answer, “I don’t believe in that god.” Or, “How could you be in a church that tells all its people exactly what to think, and if they don’t think that way, then they’re kicked out.” My answer, “I’m glad I’m not part of that church either. In fact,” I say, “you should come to Holy Comforter. It’s like herding cats.”
So I think atheists are boring and don’t know what they’re talking about. But brace yourself for the flip side. Atheists are boring and don’t know what they’re talking about because Christians are boring and don’t know what they’re talking about. I think the modern day atheists and agnostics are the way they are because they are reacting to Christianity. And if Christianity is boring and lame, then atheists will also be boring and lame.
So, for the boring parts of Christianity. Boring is a religion in which good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. That’s just the eternal version of our prison system. Heard it. Lived it. That’s boring. The other thing is that we don’t really know what we’re talking about. Part of the issue is that we, as the Church, still believe in the God that was taught to us in our second grade Sunday school classes. And wow, third grade is where Sunday school really got interesting.
It’s a bold new world out there, and Christianity is full of excitement. And I think the one way to quit being so boring, and to be truly authentic about what we believe, is to acknowledge that sometimes we don’t believe. We have to confess to our doubts.
That’s the key to this story of Doubting Thomas and Jesus. Even though all the other ten disciples tell Thomas that they have seen the risen Lord, Thomas has doubts. If you think about it, Thomas is actually being the reasonable one. If somebody told you that a man had risen bodily from the dead, I think it would only be reasonable to be skeptical. Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” I can’t blame him really. He’s just being reasonable.
Believe me, I have been Doubting Thomas. I am Doubting Thomas. I was part of Christian groups in college in which doubting was not acceptable. I would bare my soul and say, “sometimes I don’t know if God is really there.” I would say, “sometimes I doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.” That’s not the sad part. The sad part is that my fellow Christians stood there in shock and horror that one of their own would acknowledge such doubt. I suspected they had their own doubts too, but they were just too boring and stuck in second grade to admit it. Acknowledging our doubt and our fears is the first step away from boring Christianity. It’s the first step past second grade Sunday school.
It’s why when I have difficulty saying the Nicene Creed, when I have trouble wrapping my mind around a virgin birth and a bodily resurrection, I can be honest about that. And thanks be to God, that I don’t have to say the Creed by myself, I can reach out and touch someone in this church who can believe those things on my behalf. And at some point in the future, when you are having that crisis, I can return the favor.
So let’s talk about an interesting Christianity. An interesting Christianity is when you stop under the overpass on I 45, roll down the window for some shady looking character, and hand out a bag of food. That’s interesting, because you never know what’s going to happen. Boring is staying in church and assuring ourselves that we are going to heaven. Interesting Christianity is giving money away, and living on less. Interesting Christianity is leaving our homes and going on mission trips and service trips. Interesting Christianity is like Thomas, Believing Thomas, who traveled all the way to India, proclaiming the gospel and dying for it. Boring Christianity is staying at home and watching the same old guys preach on TV, and not risk their lives for it.
And we’ve got to move beyond an elementary conception of God. We’ve just got to. The atheists of our day will skewer us all day long if we never graduate into a more complex, thoughtful, nuanced Christianity. We’ve got to admit our doubts, ask God to forgive them, and then talk about it. I challenge you each to try a bible study; and think bigger about God than you have ever thought before. That’s what happened to Thomas. What he thought about God changed dramatically. Thomas thought that God was only God of the living; ahhh, but he is also God of the dead. That’s some interesting Christianity.
Now, back to all those seminarians who want to be priests, and end up losing their faith. It doesn’t make me question seminary, it makes me question the faith that the person lost. My guess is that their faith was boring. And that their conception of God didn’t go beyond what they learned in Sunday School. My prayer, for each of you, is that you too go through some crisis of faith. My prayer is that each of you question Christianity when it is boring and elementary. I pray that each of you are Thomas. I pray that you go from faith, to doubt, to true faith.